01  Jul
Weather woes

I’ve often said that bad weather can make even the best farmer look bad, while good weather can make a poor farmer look–well, a lousy farmer looks bad in spite of the weather.

But I digress. I don’t know if we can attribute it to climate change, the first hints of an El Nino, or just luck of the draw, but weather sure is wreaking havoc in several farming areas. I just got an email from a dairy nutritionist in Nebraska inquiring about the availability of very early corn hybrids because tornadoes and heavy rains are causing farmers to replant corn (for silage). And a friend in Minnesota, a plant breeder, reports that heavy rains there are flooding spring-planted crops. It’s not that bad in the Northeast, but that depends on the location, especially when a thunderstorm drops several inches on one farm while not touching farms in the next community. I remember one day sitting in my office during hay crop harvest when all of a sudden it started raining in torrents. We had several employees involved in chopping and hauling the crop, so I went hauling up there in my car expecting the worst. But when I got there, only a few miles north of the farm, it was bone dry, the sun was shining, and the guys were wondering if I’d just washed my car since it was still wet!

There’s nothing that can be done to change the weather, but good crop managers seem to make the best of a bad situation. They have the ability to get things done not only right, but quickly. The move from baling forages as dry hay to chopping them for silage made a huge difference, reducing weather risk from several days to about half a day. Especially with second and subsequent harvests, mowing early in the morning often can mean chopping that afternoon. Yet I continue to see field after field of brown windrows, wet yet again from the latest shower, the farmer waiting for enough dry weather to be ready to bale. Many of these same farms already put up corn silage, so the move from dry hay to hay silage means a different head for the chopper plus more silage capacity. Not simple or cheap–but neither is trying to make dry hay in the humid Northeast!

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: July 1, 2014, 3:03 pm | No Comments »

05  Jun
Tin ear

It always amazes me, but probably shouldn’t, that so many farmers only listen to the advice that pleases them. The latest example involves the miserable early spring planting conditions that left most of the corn still unplanted when grasses reached the boot stage. Extension educators and university specialists recommended, with considerable publicity, that when it’s time to mow forages park the corn planter. Did farmers listen? If they did it was with a “tin ear” since most sure didn’t follow the recommendation. In farmers’ minds, while alfalfa may be the queen of forage crops, corn is king with no pretenders to the crown. It was particularly important to follow the advice, for two reasons: First, grasses decline in quality somewhat more quickly than does alfalfa, and a fully-headed crop of cool-season forage grass is no longer decent forage for high-producing dairy cows. Not for no reason do we say “When you see the head the quality is dead.” Second, grasses are ready for harvest sooner than is alfalfa, so there was still more time remaining to get corn planted with the expectation of good yield.

First cut almost always is the highest-yielding one; in the case of forage grasses often at least half the total season’s yield. And late-harvested grasses don’t recover nearly as fast, so not only is the first cut of lower quality but second cut is also impacted. And while late-harvested first cut often produces impressive yields, I often ask farmers what’s worse than having lousy forage? Having a lot of it.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: June 5, 2014, 1:06 pm | No Comments »

I guess this could be considered a rant. I’ve been complaining for several years that farmers don’t have any data on the standability of corn hybrids harvested for silage. I check all the state university trials in the northern U.S. and down as far as Virginia, and there’s not a single trial that reports standability. Perhaps today’s corn hybrids stand so well that this information isn’t needed—but if nobody is collecting this data how do we know? Seed companies selling against BMR corn hybrids sometimes say very nasty things about BMR standability, but where’s the data?

Now we learn that because of staffing and economics “issues”, beginning this year Cornell University will no longer plant corn hybrid trials. This is bad news indeed for farmers in N.Y. and New England, since it leaves them with almost no data on early-maturity hybrids–under 90 RM. I checked other state university hybrid trials, and here’s the situation:

Wisconsin: Has a 90 RM and earlier trial, but there are very few seed companies marketing in the Northeast included, and none of the regional seed companies selling in the Northeast.
Minnesota: Has a 92 RM and earlier trial, but only a few 85 RM hybrids and none from companies selling in the Northeast.
Michigan: Nothing less than 96 RM.
Pennsylvania: Has a 85-92 RM trial but only two hybrids that are 85 RM, mostly 90+ RM.

With the increasing use of triticale and other spring-harvested cereals there’s a real need for data on the performance of sub-90 RM corn hybrids. We know from previous trial data that there are big differences among early-season hybrids in yield and milk production per acre. The Cornell trials were about the only reliable, unbiased source of 80-90 RM hybrid performance. Now what will farmers and those advising farmers do? I sure don’t know.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: May 3, 2014, 1:41 pm | No Comments »

07  Apr
Weather….or not

I’m typing this from the Michigan State University campus, and just finished a walk since I spent much of the day in the car. I was wearing my UConn Husky cap in hopes of encountering a Spartan basketball fan–hopefully a good-natured one since my Huskies recently knocked Michigan State out of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But no such luck. Our hotel is on the edge of the university golf course, and there were some crazy golfers out there even though there were still traces of snow here and there. Maybe not so crazy since I remember playing one spring in the Poconos where we established a temporary local rule: Free lifts from snow drifts.

Cold weather has been in the news of late, as various predictions are that the Great Lakes are frozen so extensively–surface area as well as ice depth–that this will have a decided impact on early season cropping, perhaps persisting into June (!). One crops consultant is recommending that farmers seriously consider swapping full season corn hybrids for earlier-maturing ones. Others aren’t as spooked, say that it’s too early to be making any changes in cropping plans. If there’s any impact it’s more likely to be closest to the Great Lakes and other large bodies of water. Adding to the confusion is that weather prognosticators say that there’s an even chance of warmer vs. cooler spring weather. (This way they can’t be wrong.)

Also of concern is what to do about winter cereals such as triticale that were planted with the intention of harvest just prior to planting corn. Even with “normal” weather this often results in planting corn later than ideal, but what will happen if corn planting time arrives and the winter cereals have just started to put on yield but are a couple of weeks from the recommended flag leaf harvest stage? How long should farmers wait before they decide to forgo a triticale crop and start to plant corn? What impact will a foot of triticale growth have on corn planting, since we know that triticale produces toxins that are at least somewhat allelopathic to corn? (Allelopathy is the ability of one plant species to produce chemicals harmful to another plant species.) I’m told that there was about 30,000 acres of triticale planted in NY State last fall, most of it with the intention of harvest in the coming month, more or less. I think we’ll wind up much wiser but perhaps also somewhat sadder by the time we’re on the other side of spring planting and spring forage harvest this year.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: April 7, 2014, 8:17 pm | No Comments »

I place as much reliance on farmer testimonials in ads for agricultural products as I do in the daily horoscope, which is to say none at all. This isn’t to suggest that the farmer making the testimonial is lying or even exaggerating what he sees as the facts. However, if enough farmers try a product, even one that has no more ability to increase crop yields or quality than a spoonful of sand spread over a ten-acre field, a few farmers will have wonderful crops (usually due to favorable growing weather). The success of the crop had nothing to do with the foo-foo dust he sprinkled on the seed or the soil, but the dealer selling the farmer the foo-foo dust will convince the farmer that it alone was responsible for the bumper crop; he’ll get the farmer to agree, and then get a testimonial to that effect. The dealer can go to ten farmers who used the foo-foo dust and if he can convince only one that the stuff worked–of this farmer testimonials are born. Consider this: Have you ever seen an ad with a negative testimonial: “Yep, I tried foo-foo dust and I don’t think it did a darned thing. I got just as good a crops where I didn’t use it.”

Of course this doesn’t stop some farmers from trying even the wildest, most unlikely product. Many years ago a fellow came down to Northern N.Y. from Quebec with a station wagon full of bags of mineral supplement for dairy cattle. He claimed that the supplement (which turned out to be mostly sodium chloride) “flushed mastitis out of cows” and was completely safe, even to the point where if the farmer found blood in the milk it was OK to sell the milk, “it’s just the mastitis coming out of the cow.” The farmer who asked me about this said that it was about the craziest idea he’d ever heard of. I said that I wish I could see a bag of it, whereupon he said (quite sheepishly), “Come on out to the barn, I bought a couple bags of it.” But even something as wild as this can result in a farmer testimonial, especially if even one farmer’s mastitis problem appeared to decrease after he start to feed the salt. In this case we never found out much more about the miracle salt since the Quebec fellow was soon “invited” to leave the country by U.S. regulatory officials.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: March 3, 2014, 7:49 pm | No Comments »

I was reading a New York Times article about the new Farm Bill, and it was so negative that it should have appeared on the op-ed page–perhaps it did since I was reading it on-line. But what was revealing were the almost 100 reader comments; I read perhaps forty of them including all the ones the Times considered the “best”, and every single one disparaged the new bill. Much of the vituperation was over cuts to Food Stamps even though these reportedly will affect only 4% of Food Stamp recipients. But what moved me was what seemed like the unanimous opposition to any program that affects commercial farms–”factory farms” and “corporate farms” are two commonly used terms. Some farmers probably only wish that their farms could be run as seamlessly as a factory, but things such as weather and prices (over which farmers have little or no control) make that impossible. The more common term bandied about in the reader comments was “corporate farms”, used as a pejorative rather than as a simple description. The non-farm public obviously doesn’t realize that well over 90% of corporate farms are family farms, the great majority of them incorporated to facilitate the transfer of the business to the next generation. But agriculture doesn’t have a voice in the popular press…

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: February 6, 2014, 1:27 pm | No Comments »

07  Jan
Labeling GM foods

I had already decided to write this month’s post about labeling genetically modified foods, but before so was reviewing some of the dozen or so e-newsletters I receive. Three of today’s headlines stood out: USDA reopens the comment period on GM apples; a genetic discovery may lead to bigger tomato yields, and there’s a new push in California for a vote on GMO labels.

It will cost many millions to re-do food labels, a cost that of course will be passed down to consumers. And since I’d be willing to bet that poor folks use more packaged foods instead of preparing foods from scratch, it could be argued that the cost of BM labels hurts the poor more and therefore is regressive–a favorite term these days. Most people have no idea of how their food is produced, and therefore would probably be amazed at the percentage of soybean oil, corn oil–almost anything made from corn or soybeans in fact–that’s from GM crops. So unless and until there’s enough consumer pressure (and a substantial price premium for farmers) that farmers go back to growing non-GM crops, consumers would probably be amazed at the percentage of their foods that contain a GM grain or grain byproduct. This would mean a big-time U-turn for farmers since over 95% of U.S. soybeans are genetically modified. How much price premium would it take for farmers to switch? How much extra would consumers be willing to pay for a bottle of corn oil that’s made from non-GM corn?

I’m on the “no labeling” side of the argument, in large measure because there’s never been any research showing that GM products pose any threat to human health. So why label foodstuffs? I’d rather see labels including a “No GMO” statement, just as the jar of Peter Pan peanut butter in my pantry states “No high fructose corn syrup” on the label. Then let the consumers see the price difference between GM and non-GM products that are similar in every other way, and make their own decision.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: January 7, 2014, 7:33 am | No Comments »

11  Nov
Labeling laws

The bill that would require labeling of all foods containing genetically modified products was soundly defeated last week in Washington; now the battle moves on to Oregon, in a third attempt on the Left Coast. (A labeling bill in California was defeated previously.) Two New England states have passed labeling bills, but at least one more in the region will have to before it becomes law. My best friend lives in Washington, and was very much in favor of a labeling bill. But his educational background is social science and while he’s very well-read I’m not sure that he groks the concept of empirical data. For the data is all one-sided, showing that GMOs have absolutely no negative impact on human nutrition or health. The “foodists” tried to have all milk produced by cows receiving rBST to be labeled; failing that now the milk companies label milk that’s not from treated cows. Rather than labeling all foods produced with the use of GMOs, perhaps a middle ground would be to label foods made from non-GMO products. I think that consumers would be surprised at how few processed foods would be so labeled since over 90% of corn and soybeans are GM. Even the EU is softening it’s once-intractable stance on GMOs, and currently there’s a proposal to legalize the use of GM corn. (I don’t think there are enough soybeans grown in EU countries for this crop to be much of an issue.)

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: November 11, 2013, 7:46 am | No Comments »

14  Oct
Snowbirds

October is often one of the nicest months of the year and more so in 2013 than most any October in recent memory. Here in our little vacation community there’s a bit of sadness that comes with October because the “snowbirds”–retired folks who winter in the south and are here at Oak Point from spring through fall–are leaving. We lose quite a few summer residents on or just before Labor Day weekend as schools and colleges restart, but these are younger families. The folks leaving in October are retired, and their age plus actuarial statistics are reminders that not all may be returning next spring. Katy and I will leave in mid-November; we’re the last of the “seasonal residents” to leave in the fall and the first to return in the spring, in late March. We’ve discovered that since we winter in Virginia, this schedule results in our seeing spring and fall arrive twice each year. For when we get to Virginia–North Chesterfield, just south of Richmond–some of the oak trees won’t have their fall colors yet, each spring the magnolia blossoms are falling by the time we head back north, often to remaining traces of the winter’s snow. This year there will only be three “Rounders”–folks that stay here year-around–in Oak Point, as an octogenarian couple who’ve lived here for many years have been talked into spending the winter with family in Connecticut. It’s not just the weather that makes Virginia attractive in the winter, but the lack of things to do around here once the boats, lawnmower and leaf rake have been put away for the season.

It’s been a wonderful fall for farmers to harvest; even the couple of big rains were far enough apart that they posed only slight delays. The warm weather has permitted both corn and soybeans to “finish”–even soybeans planted mid-June or a bit later. I haven’t checked with farmers about yields, but looking at the standing crop it appears that yields will be very good.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: October 14, 2013, 7:10 am | No Comments »

One of the more common questions I get is about asphalt floors for bunker and drive-over piles. We had our first asphalt floor installed in two new bunker silos at Miner Institute twenty years ago and since then have built several new bunker silos, all with asphalt floors. The only silo we had with a concrete floor was resurfaced with asphalt and is doing just fine. In fact, Miner Institute is in the process of enlarging this silo and will use asphalt; although farmers don’t often realize it until too late, concrete is a temporary floor; temporary since it’s lime-based and silage acids will start eating it away with the first load of forage dumped into it. Asphalt is impervious to silage acids, and I’ve seen asphalt floors in bunker silos that are over 25 years old and still in mint condition–I defy anyone to tell whether the floor is two year old or over ten times that. To anyone planning on using concrete for a silo floor, I ask—Why?

There’s a good leaflet available for anyone planning on installing an asphalt floor in a silo. The URL is below, or you can download it by going to the asphaltroads.org website and looking for publication IM038, “Hot-mix asphalt for silage floors and feeding bunkers”. It’s a good publication but I’m a bit prejudiced since I helped in the preparation of it.

http://asphaltroads.org/images/documents/HMA%20for%20Silage%20Floors%20and%20Feeding%20Bunkers_403229225_11272007000243.pdf

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: August 21, 2013, 9:28 am | No Comments »

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